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South Korean court says stolen statue must return to Japan

South Korean Buddhist monk Woonou speaks to the media outside the court at the Daejeon High Court in Daejeon, South Korea, on Feb. 1, 2023. (Lee Ju-hyung/Yonhap via AP)

SEOUL (AP) -- A South Korean court ruled Wednesday that a 14th century Korean Buddhist statue should be sent back to a Japanese temple from where it was stolen in 2012.

    The statue's return had been put on hold for years after a South Korean temple claimed ownership of it, insisting that it was likely looted by medieval Japanese pirates before it ended up at a temple on Tsushima island, presumably in 1527.

    The South Korean temple is likely to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.

    Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said his government will encourage Seoul to facilitate the statue's swift return to Japan.

    The 50-centimeter (20-inch) gilt bronze Buddha statue was one of two stolen from Tsushima's Kannonji temple by thieves who attempted to sell them in South Korea.

    South Korea's government returned the other statue to the temple soon after police recovered the items from the thieves, who were arrested and prosecuted.

    But Buseoksa temple in the western coastal city of Seosan filed a lawsuit to prevent the government from sending back the other statue, saying Buseoksa is the rightful owner. Korean historical records indicate that the statue, which is being kept at a state research institute in the central city of Daejeon, was created about 1330 to be enshrined at Buseoksa.

    The Daejeon District Court ruled in 2017 that the government should return the statue to Buseoksa, saying it was likely taken to Japan through theft or pillage.

    But the Daejeon High Court overturned the ruling on Wednesday, saying Japan's Kannonji had acquired legal ownership of the statue through continuous possession.

    Under Japanese civil law, a person or entity may acquire ownership of a property that didn't originally belong to them if they possess it "peacefully and openly" for at least 20 years. This means that Kannonji has been the statue's legal owner since 1973 because it listed itself as a legal entity in 1953, the Daejeon High Court ruled.

    The court also said it is difficult to establish whether the current Buseoksa temple should fully inherit the rights of the temple that originally possessed the statute in the 14th century despite sharing the same name, citing a lack of documents proving a succession in religious identity, organizational structure and property.

    Buseoksa's representatives criticized the ruling and said they will discuss with their lawyers whether to appeal to the Supreme Court.

    "We likely need to appeal as today's ruling was hard to understand and lacked legal logic," said Lee Sang-geun, who heads a committee of Buddhist leaders and civic activists pushing for the statue's return to Buseoksa.

    Sekko Tanaka, Kannonji's former head monk, welcomed the ruling but questioned why the case has dragged out for more than a decade when it was essentially about a "simple theft."

    "I'm grateful that the justice upheld our request," he told Japan's TBS television. "I hope to see the statue returned to Kannonji as soon as possible."

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